1880s - This black writer penned plantation fiction while passing as white
Charles Chestnutt wrote enduring tales of the Old South
Charles Chesnutt is remembered as one of the best and earliest African American short story writers, but he didn’t reveal his ancestry to the Atlantic Monthly when he submitted his short stories for consideration in the early 1880s. Chesnutt, who estimated his heritage as 1/16 black and 15/16s white, started writing fiction at time when such precise measurements mattered deeply. Though he spent most of his adult life as a pillar of the black community in Cleveland, it was that one act of passing that likely guaranteed his publication.
Chesnutt was born in Ohio in 1858 in and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, where his family moved after the Civil War. He was a product of the new schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau, where he was educated and later taught, eventually becoming a principal at a Fayetteville school when he was 22 years old. Chesnutt, relentlessly ambitious, could not be contained by the South. He returned to Ohio in the early 1880s, studied for and passed the state bar, and launched a successful court stenography business.
Despite his success, and his new wealth, what he truly wanted was to be an author. He was clear about his goal from the beginning. “The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites,” he mused in his diary, considering the limitations of his own life, and the daily injustice faced by all African Americans in the Jim Crow era. Chesnutt, influenced by the success of novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, believed that fiction could change perceptions and elicit sympathies like no other form.
He set his sights on publication in the Atlantic Monthly, which had never before published fiction by an African American, and sent his first manuscript in cold, where it ended up in the 19th century equivalent of a slush pile. But the editors accepted Chesnutt’s first story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” in 1887, and requested that he send more. Eventually four short stories featuring his signature character, Uncle Julius, appeared in the magazine. Houghton Mifflin, which owned the Atlantic at the time, also commissioned a book of Uncle Julius stories. The book was called The Conjure Woman, and was part of a two-book contract, which also included a collection of short stories called “The Wife of His Youth.”
The Uncle Julius stories were part of a genre known as plantation fiction, stories told in dialect about life in the Old South. Most plantation fiction was nostalgic, but Chesnutt’s work in the form was haunting. There was nothing charming or romantic about the slavery Julius recalls for the new, Northern owners of the plantation where he once worked as a slave. Mostly Julius tells them stories about families that have been sold apart. In one, a wife, Tenie, tries to save her husband, Sandy, from being sold to another owner by turning him into a tree. Tenie eventually decides on a more permanent solution. “[A]tter studyin’ de matter ober, en talkin’ wid Sandy one ebenin,’ she made up her mine fer ter fix up a goopher mixtry wa’t would turn herse’f en sandy ter foxes, er sump’n, so dey could run away en go some’rs whar dey could be free and lib lack w’ite folks.” Instead, Sandy is milled for lumber while Tenie is working at another plantation. In another, a conjure woman (or sorceress) turns a young boy into a mockingbird so he can visit his mother after she’s traded to another plantation. The stories in “The Wife of His Youth” deal with similar themes.
Though he eventually wrote several novels, Chesnutt’s stories are still considered his best work. As literary styles became more modern in the early 20th century, Chesnutt’s fiction began to seem somewhat melodramatic. And as his subjects became more realistic, and rooted in the present moment rather than the recent past of slavery, his books also became harder for white readers to sympathize with.
American author William Dean Howells, for instance, a vocal supporter of Chesnutt’s short stories, was less than thrilled about novels such as The Marrow of Tradition, published in 1901. The book dramatized a 1898 riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, where a white mob assembled and ousted the democratically elected black leaders of the majority black town. After reading the novel, Howells wondered if Chesnutt had lost his way artistically. “The book is, in fact, bitter, bitter,” Howells wrote in a review. “There is no reason in history why it should not be so, if wrong is to be repaid with hate, and yet it would be better if it was not so bitter.”
Chesnutt had always walked a peculiar line. He identified as black, and his affinity for African American culture was genuine and deeply felt, but he looked white. Moreover, he knew that race wasn’t real. That was a sentiment most white people couldn’t fathom, and one that eventually turned wider reading audiences away from his fiction.